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Critical Race Conversations /

Critical Race Conversations: We Are What You Eat: Conversations on Food and Race

Gitanjali G. Shahani and Jennifer Park

Originally recorded on October 15, 2020

Program Overview

This Critical Race Conversation is associated with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures

To map out the histories of everyday foodstuffs—sugar, spice, coffee, tea—is to map out the histories of race and colonialism. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, during England’s formative ventures across the globe, some of the earliest encounters with racial, cultural, and religious difference were registered via these foodstuffs. Long before the average English household encountered ‘an Indian,’ it encountered nutmeg and pepper from the Indies in pies and possets, in homemade contraceptives and ‘morning after’ treatments. Likewise, the English housewife in the seventeenth century had no direct contact with the enslaved people of the Caribbean plantation, but she sprinkled the products of their labor into her preserves and confections. It is in the writing about these foods that we can start to trace the intersections between food and race.

In this “Critical Race Conversation,” Dr. Gitanjali Shahani (she/her/hers) and Dr. Jennifer Park (she/her/hers) explore the ways in which food studies, critical race studies, and early modern studies inform and enrich each other. They look to modern and early modern foodways, in order to examine different forms of what bell hooks has famously called ‘eating the other.’ Interrogating the blurred criteria of what marks matter as edible or inedible, digestible or indigestible, Shahani and Park explore the range of substances, as well as the bodies themselves, that stand in for or comprise a culture’s “racial others,” in order to trouble the racialized assumptions complicit in the dietary commonplace that “you are what you eat.”

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About the Speakers

Dr. Jennifer Park is Assistant Professor of English, specializing in early modern drama, at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her work focuses on the intersections of literature, science and medicine, race, gender, and performance in early modern England. Her most recent publications focus on early modern recipe culture, including an article in Studies in Philology on candying, food preservation processes, and race in Antony and Cleopatra; an article in Performance Matters on gender, glass vessels and alchemical performance; and an essay in the volume Food and Literature, edited by Gitanjali Shahani, on blood drinking as a form of strange eating. She was a 2019 research fellow with the Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and she is currently working on a book-length project on early modern recipes, science and medicine, and race in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Dr. Gitanjali Shahani is Professor of English at San Francisco State University, where she teaches courses on Shakespeare studies, postcolonial studies, and food studies. She is the author of Tasting Difference: Food, Race, and Cultural Encounters in Early Modern Literature (Cornell University Press, 2020). She has edited two collections, Food and Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and Emissaries in Early Modern Literature & Culture (Routledge 2016, Ashgate 2009, with Brinda Charry). Her articles on race and colonialism in early modern literature have been published in numerous collections and journals, including ShakespeareShakespeare Studies, and The Journal of Early Modern Cultural Studies.